A must-read for history-minded IW residents

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Anniversaries are important, and few are more so than a community’s. That’s why, in 1984, Isle of Wight went to great lengths to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its founding as a county.

The county initiated an exchange program with our namesake, Isle of Wight, England, encouraged programs in county schools celebrating the event and held an all-day festival at the courthouse. None of the celebration’s elements was more lasting or important than a book titled “Many Voices.”

Many Voices is 316 pages of Isle of Wight history, as recalled by 75 of the county’s senior residents back in 1984-86.

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The interviewees formed the corps of a generation now lost to us. When they were growing up in the early years of the 20th century, life in rural Isle of Wight wasn’t a whole lot different than it had been for much of the 19th century. Wood stoves, even fireplaces were still in use, as were outdoor privies and mules pulling farm implements. They rode in wagons and carts to town and aboard steamboats to Newport News and Norfolk.

But, oh, did their lives change. As young people, they saw the first airplanes fly over Smithfield, then lived to see jet contrails in the sky and, unbelievably, man walking on the moon. They listened to primitive radios, then primitive televisions, and many of them ultimately lived to see cables connecting their color televisions to the world. Theirs was truly a remarkable window on local history, and their recollections form a priceless collection.

One of the interesting features of the interviews is the window of an even earlier time that the interviewees offer. For example, Mrs. Rubie Purdie Horne recalled that, as a teenager, she was embarrassed when her father asked her, in front of friends, to “step in the Apothecary Shop” and bring him a particular item. “I didn’t understand why he didn’t call it a drug store,” she said.

And there are vivid recollections of a much straighter-laced society during their youth. Lucille Maynard Gwaltney, a Surry native, moved to Smithfield as a young teacher and offered a fascinating picture of the demands placed on that profession during the 1930s.

“We were required to spend 30 percent of our weekends in the town where we were boarding. We were required to visit the home of every student that we taught, making a report each month explaining where we had been.”

Mary Bell Ross of Carrollton was one of many Black county residents interviewed for the project, and their contributions were vital. Mrs. Bell was 100 years old when she was interviewed and thus offered an even earlier view of life in Isle of Wight.

“I went to a little school called Seven Wives Hall. There would be about two dozen or three dozen children there. I had a little primer, “Ducks on the Pond.”

“We walked to school — about four miles — six months to the year, but I didn’t go all six months because we had work we had to do. Later on, we did have nine months. We sat on a bench and wrote in our lap. We had a little slate board.”

“Before we went to school, we had to go in the woods and chop wood for my mother who was kind of sickly.”

Lawrence Thacker recalled the customs surrounding death and dying.

“Near bout every farm that amounted to anything had a burying ground. If you were sick, community members would look after you, and when you died, they would ‘sit up’ until you were buried. Everyone would come at night and be there in the daytime.

“Bain Poole had a hearse for children pulled by white horses, and grown people got black horses.”

And so goes this book of local treasures.

The late Mary Wells of Rushmere, a veteran Extension agent in the county, was the driving force behind the book. She found interviewers, coordinated editing of the material and conducted half of the interviews herself. She was indefatigable in her determination to see the project to its conclusion. The county originally planned to publish the book in 1984, the year of the celebration, but it took a bit longer to bring the materials together than originally anticipated. It was completed and published in 1986.

Many Voices remains in print and is available at the Isle of Wight Museum for the ridiculously low price of $5. It should be on the bookshelf of anyone who values this county’s rural past.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.